When Ken Burns releases a documentary, America watches. This is partly because of his uniquely compelling style, but also partly because his stories are those of America itself: the Civil War, jazz, baseball.
But now some ethnic activists and politicians are decrying Burns’s latest project on World War II, The War, as not reflective of America — and are seeking to impose that judgment. If they get their way, there may be more such spats on the horizon.
Why the ruckus?
Burns’s narrative technique relies heavily on individual accounts and The War is no exception. He aims to tell the story of how World War II affected the people of four towns — Sacramento, California; Waterbury, Connecticut; Mobile, Alabama; and Luverne, Minnesota. Interviews with survivors from those towns are integral to the story and, naturally, the survivors are few in number today.
This is where the politics comes in. Among those survivors are African-Americans and, because of the very special circumstances involved, Japanese-Americans who were unjustly interned. But there are no Hispanics, which has led outraged Latino advocacy groups to pressure Burns to include Hispanics in his documentary.
There are indeed Hispanic stories to tell about the war. The U.S. Census Bureau estimates about 1.8 million Hispanics in the USA in 1940, almost 1.5 percent of the population, of whom only a quarter were foreign-born. Hispanic soldiers received 13 Medals of Honor out of the 435 awarded. Yet the chances of any of them being associated with the communities Burns selected are small. Given Burns’s narrative approach, it is not unreasonable that no Hispanic individuals would crop up.
To these advocacy groups, historical accuracy and artistic vision must take a back seat to their political agenda. A group called Defend The Honor was set up to coordinate attacks on Burns, including some particularly vicious and personal cartoons. (Cartoon interviewer: “Don’t you see, you must include Latino soldiers in your massive WWII documentary”; cartoon Burns: “Oh, I suppose. I am Ken Burns after all. [pause] â€¦I will call it How We Won WWII Without Latinos.”)
Burns, to his credit, has not responded in kind to the vitriol, and has even proposed an addendum to his film, aided by Hispanic documentary maker Hector Galan, with the same aesthetic scheme, music, and overall appearance as his already-completed work. It would form part of the DVD and any subsequent broadcast, but would not involve re-editing (which, as anyone who has seen a Burns film will know, would be a daunting task).
But that was not enough for the advocacy groups. Because Burns makes his films for PBS, which receives funding from Congress, the advocacy groups went to the Congressional Hispanic Caucus. In a letter to the president of PBS in April they issued this demand: “The only appropriate course of action is that the documentary entitled The War fully incorporate within the body of the documentary the integral role of Hispanics.”
PBS, to its credit, reacted strongly to this bullying by asserting its editorial independence, saying in a statement, “Any attempt by the government or interest groups to influence content, especially before a program has aired, raises serious Constitutional, statutory and policy concerns.”
This case in many ways illustrates what we can expect if some politicians make good on their talk of resurrecting the Fairness Doctrine in broadcasting. Politicians will monitor the content of programs, not just for political incorrectness, but wherever their — and their supporters’ — agendas may wander.
Private broadcasters don’t get PBS-style government funding, but, by arguing that they broadcast on “the public’s airwaves,” politicians can arrogate to themselves the power to scrutinize every documentary, sitcom, and reality show. Regulation of new media may not be far behind, on similarly spurious grounds.
Burns now feels that he is putting the affair behind him, although the advocacy groups continue to pour venom in his direction. As he recently told the Philadelphia Daily News, “The people that are in our film are not their nationality, not their country of origin, not their ethnicity, not their religion, not their sex, not their race, but human beings. Not just Americans, but human beings.”
Naturally, any realistic depiction of human beings is bound to be complex. But ethnic advocacy groups are only too happy to gloss over such complexity in favor of their own simplified, politicized narratives. This is bad for media and bad for public debate.
Winston Churchill once said, “War is too important to be left to the generals.” Perhaps, but in this case The War, as a symbol of free expression, is too important to be left to the politicians.